Opinion: Task before Justice Mukthar

by Jide Ojo

Hearty congratulations to the new Chief Justice of Nigeria, Honourable Justice Aloma Mariam Mukthar, who was sworn in as the 13th CJN on Monday, July 16, 2012. Twelve predecessors of the new CJN include Adetokunbo Ademola 1958–1972; Teslim Olawale Elias, 1972–1975; Darnley Arthur Alexander, 1975–1979; Atanda Fatai Williams, 1979–1983; George Sodeinde Sowemimo, 1983–1985; Ayo Gabriel Irikefe, 1985–1987; Mohammed Bello, 1987–1995; Muhammadu Lawal Uwais, 1995–2006; Salihu Moddibo Alfa Belgore, 2006–2007; Idris Legbo Kutigi, 2007–2009; Aloysius Katsina-Alu, January 1, 2010- August 28 , 2011; and Dahiru Musdapher, August 2011 – July 15, 2012.

Justice Mukthar was indeed a lady of many firsts; she is indeed a trailblazer and pacesetter. News report has it that she is the first female Northerner to become a lawyer; first female High Court Judge from the North; first female second-in-command in the Kano State Judiciary; first female Justice of the Court of Appeal where she served 17 years; first female Justice of the Supreme Court; and the first female to be honoured with the title of Grand Commander of the Order of the Niger. Statutorily, the Chief Justice of Nigeria heads the Supreme Court and the National Judicial Council, a position that has been the exclusive preserve of men since the country gained independence. It is also the first time an arm of government in Nigeria will be headed by a woman. Justice Mukthar has been described as the lady of justice and not of technicalities who commands the respect of lawyers and judges alike because of her integrity.

Kudos goes to President Goodluck Jonathan for this meritorious appointment. Though former President Olusegun Obasanjo appointed Mukthar to the Supreme Court in 2005, Jonathan has scored a number of firsts too having appointed a woman as the CJN as well as having appointed the highest number of women in his cabinet (about 13 out of 42) and appointing the highest number of female justices to the Supreme Court. If Justice Clara Ogunbiyi’s nomination to the Supreme Court is eventually confirmed by the Senate, she will be joining Justice Aloma Mukthar, Justice Olufunlola Adekeye and Justice Mary Odili. What this boils down to is that out of about 17 Justices of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, four of them will be female. This is unprecedented in the history of the apex court.

The inauguration of the new CJN also underscores a silent revolution by Nigerian women. Even though women performed poorly in the 2011 General Elections, they are getting compensated with appointive positions. There are now female Speakers in Oyo and Anambra states as well as a Deputy Speaker in the Adamawa State House of Assembly. The House of Representatives also has a female Majority Leader in Mulikat Adeola Akande.

The task before the new CJN is no doubt daunting as she comes at a time judicial reform is still inchoate. Among the major challenges she has to grapple with is how to fast-track the country’s justice delivery system. Sunday PUNCH of June 24, 2012 reported that statistics from the Nigerian Prisons Service show that there are no fewer than 53,100 inmates in prisons across the country. Out of this figure, 47,200 were standing trial as at June 20, 2012. This shows that only a paltry 5,900 are convicts while the remaining are awaiting trials. Moreover, up to 50 per cent of these Awaiting Trial Prisoners have been on remand for between five and 17 years without their cases being concluded.

This shows that potential innocent people are being made to unduly suffer. Part of the blame has been put at the doorsteps of the judiciary which is said to be slow with the dispensation of justice. According to the Deputy Comptroller of Prisons, Mr. Kayode Odeyemi, “Our criminal justice system is weak. The law enforcement agencies and the judiciary are slow in dispensing justice, making those awaiting trial increase and stay longer in the prisons. Also, the law enforcement agencies and the courts continue to find high profile cases such as armed robbery, drug trafficking, murder and homicide difficult to handle, as the principal witnesses often avoid appearance in court. This makes such cases suffer a setback.”

At a lecture organised by the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies on November 10, 2011, the immediate past CJN, Justice Dahiru Musdapher, in a paper titled, “The Nigerian Judiciary: Towards Reform of the Bastion of Constitutional Democracy”, sorely lamented the delay in the dispensation of justice which he identified as a major challenge in the justice delivery sector. He attributed the delay to institutional incapacities in facilities (especially electronic facility); in-built delay mechanisms in the law; as well as failings on the part of some judges, the official and private Bars, law enforcement agencies, litigants and witnesses. The CJN also expressed concern about “the declining intellectual depth and overall quality of the judgments of some judges as well as the frequency with which some judges churn out conflicting decisions in respect of the same set of facts.”

Some administrative steps taken by Musdapher to reform the judiciary include the setting up of Justice Muhammadu Lawal Uwais-led 28 member judicial reform committee as well as the full computerisation of the Supreme Court operations so as to ensure efficient and speedy processing of court documentations, fast-track compilation (and transmission) of records of proceedings and other vital documents. Justice Musdapher also issued an advisory to his colleagues on the Bench when he counselled them to prioritise criminal matters bordering on official corruption that are placed before them, accelerate the hearing of such cases and ensure that they were dispensed with within six months of filing. More than eight months after this worthy counsel was given, the wheel of justice still grinds slowly as no noticeable improvement has been witnessed in the justice delivery system.

The new CJN must not reinvent the wheel. She should realise that time is of essence as she has barely two years before she will reach the mandatory retirement age of 70 years. She should therefore spend her little time in office judiciously by consolidating on the reforms initiated by her predecessor. She should put her weight behind the 52 constitutional amendments her immediate predecessor submitted to the National Assembly and clinically study them with a view to implementing the report of the various justice sector reform committees, particularly the last one submitted by the Justice Uwais committee. Let her play the role of implementer and enforcer of judicial reforms and she would have achieved much to be positively remembered for in a long time to come.

This piece was originally published in Punch.

Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.


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